Next in our ‘Getting to Know’ series we chat to Joan Haig, author of the acclaimed ‘Tiger Skin Rug’ and editor of ‘Stay at Home!’
First off, tell us a little about yourself…
I care about people, animals and the planet. I wish I could speak more languages and sing in tune. I live in the Scottish Borders with my husband, cats and children. I’m not the sort of mum that embarrasses my children by saying cheesy things in interviews like how much I love them. But I do, more than I love anything in all the universe and all the parallel universes x infinity.
Tell us about your debut book ‘Tiger Skin Rug’…
It’s an adventure story about two boys from India who move with their family to Scotland. They’re horribly homesick – but that’s before they meet Jenny and before the tiger skin rug in their living room comes to life. The tiger can’t rest until an old promise is kept. Can the children help the tiger keep its promise? And who is following them? Read my Review right here on Stoomio.
You recently edited ‘Stay at Home’ a free book for children in lockdown. Can you explain more about what it is and the work that went into creating it…
Yes! It’s a collection of bite-sized stories and poems by 40 fabulous writers living in Scotland. It is a free gift for children everywhere and is aimed at helping readers reflect on their time in lockdown when billions of people around the world were told to stay at home. It was a lot of work – it came together in four weeks. It’s wonderful to see it being used in schools and enjoyed by families around the UK and beyond. Take a look – there will definitely be something in it for you.*
*100% satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.
What was your nickname at school? (If you had one)
My big sister called me ‘J the M the BFG’. Before you ask – No, I don’t feature in an unpublished sequel to a Roald Dahl novel… It’s short for ‘Joan the Moan the Big Fat Groan’. (She loves me, really.) My other sister has always called me Juanita.
Were you good at writing at school?
It was hit and miss. I hit a lot of As, but my most brilliant and hilarious story (oh, how I laughed as I wrote it!) landed me a rather sorry C minus. Quite a lot of my ‘funny’ and ‘experimental’ writing went unappreciated by teachers.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I can’t choose one. I’ll go here for a few titles that comforted me. Have you heard of Gus and Buster Work Things Out by Andrew Bronin? I loved my parents reading me this at bedtime. I grew up in Zambia and my sister and I were sent ‘Bunty’ and ‘Mandy’ comics by our aunties in Scotland. They came rolled up in brown paper and felt like a hug from afar. I love picture books and still visit The Big Orange Splot by Daniel M. Pinkwater when I feel lost. When I was a little older, I found consolation in reading and rereading Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle.
What was it that inspired you to become a writer?
I’ve always written – diaries, letters and poems – but it took me until I was 36 (when I had two little boys of my own and was diagnosed with thyroid cancer) to find the reason and confidence to write fiction and to write for children.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Oh, there are slippery banana skins and nets that fall on your head all over the place. Aspiring writers are in particular danger. The traps that usually catch me out are low confidence, judging myself negatively against well-known authors, and letting other tasks encroach on my reading and writing time.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Be true to yourself, and when you’re older, don’t throw away that big bag of postcards – there’s an untold story in it, you silly fool!
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I grew up in Zambia in the 1980s in tough times. Apart from robbers and the possibility of a deadly mamba in the sandpit, I was frightened of people (even friends) who used racist words. I didn’t like, and still don’t like, how language can be used to make a person feel in some way superior to someone else.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
Ooh, maybe a photographer. I like how a single image can tell a whole story without any words at all – it’s a bit like the way a circle or a right-angled triangle might answer a complicated maths question without using any numbers.
Has a book ever made you cry? What was it?
Oh my goodness, yes – good books always do, even if they’re not sad! The first I recall was Charlotte’s Web by E.B White.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Oddly enough, it’s books. I often read when I could/should be writing, and then I think I can’t possibly write as well as anyone else, so I freeze up for a while. According to my family, writing is my Kryptonite for housework. (Cheeky bunch.)
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
A week-long writing retreat at Moniack Mhor Creative Writing Centre in the Scottish Highlands – I met a bunch of marvellous people and started Tiger Skin Rug.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
Oh, I can never choose one of anything! I have two tiger mascots – Nyika and John – for Tiger Skin Rug. And for my next novel, my mascot is a moggy. For my writing in general, it’s a sloth – I have a small painting of a giant sloth that inspires me. Sloths spend most of their lives hanging upside down from trees, and sister sloths like to hang out upside down together. Like tigers and moggies, they tend to work in short bursts of activity and then slow down, which is like me. I’m an advocate of slow living – the world is too fast.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
I’ve only written one book and I’m lucky to have had it published. At the moment I’m co-writing a kids’ nonfiction book (with Joan Lennon and published by Templar next year) and I have a second novel in progress.
What does literary success look like to you?
It looks like the girl at Biggar Primary School who told me that Tiger Skin Rug helped her feel understood. Or the 9/10 review blue-tacked to a school library wall in Edinburgh, where the lost point was because the book isn’t part of a series and the young reviewer wants more. Much as I’d love a flashy book prize and will never stop being excited when I see my book on a bookshop table or shelf (eep!), these aren’t in themselves the success – the success is connecting people to ideas and feelings through words.
Do you Google yourself?
No, I’m not that vain or paranoid. Why? What’s on there? Should I? What have I done? What do I look like? Do I sound silly? Oh help… **dashes off to Google**
And most importantly… What is your favourite biscuit?
This is a tough one. I didn’t grow up in the UK and, decades on, I’m still learning the hidden meanings behind things like favourite crisps, brand of tea or biscuit. I’m going to be brave, though, and admit that (aside from my nine-year-old’s latest batch of choc-chip cookies, obvs), it’s a ginger nut. Are we still friends?
Before you go is there anything else you’d like to mention…
Just, I suppose, that it means a great deal to newbie authors (especially ones like me who have chosen and been chosen by small, independent publishers) to have the support of book promoters and book bloggers. Small publishers don’t have big print runs or marketing budgets. The work of bloggers helps our stories reach more readers. Thank you, Stoomio!
No, Thank YOU Joan for putting so much thought into answering this mountain (apologies 😆) of questions. If your reading this and would like to know more…